Purpose: The COVID-19 pandemic, now in its third year, has served as a magnifying glass, exposing the inequitable impact of the outbreak. The study aims to analyze the relationships between the socioeconomic and ethnic characteristics of the population and COVID-19 testing, infection, and vaccination throughout the first five pandemic waves. Design: A secondary analysis of an existing national database was conducted in Israel from March 2020 to May 2022. During the study period, Israel underwent 5 pandemic peaks or waves (March–April 2020, September–October 2020, January–February 2021, September 2021, and January–February 2022). Methods: Data on tests performed, confirmed COVID-19 cases, and uptake of vaccine doses one through four during the study period, were analyzed by the socioeconomic (SE) cluster (scale of 1 to 10) and ethnicity (Jewish, Arab, mixed Jewish- Arab ethnicity) of the residents' local authority. Results: COVID-19 testing rate gradually increased from the lowest to the highest SE clusters, with rates 3.2 times higher in the second highest, compared with the lowest cluster. People living in Jewish localities were tested twice more than those in Arab or mixed localities. The rate of confirmed cases was 1.9, 3.0, 6.3, and 4.3 times higher, respectively, among cluster 1 (the lowest) compared with cluster 9 (second highest) in the first, second, third, and fourth pandemic waves, respectively. Rates among people living in Arab or mixed localities were higher compared with those living in Jewish localities in 3 of the 5 waves. Vaccine uptake revealed a clear social gradient, with the percentage of the population being vaccinated gradually increasing from cluster 1 (the lowest) to the higher clusters. The relative difference between the lowest and highest SE clusters increased from 2.4 in the first vaccine dose to 5.5 in the third and fourth doses. Ethnic disparities also grew with vaccine dose, with a Jewish to an Arab rate ratio of 1.1, 1.2, 1.6, and 4.5 for vaccine doses 1,2,3, and 4, respectively. Conclusions: Covering 26 consecutive months of the COVID-19 pandemic at the national level, the current study demonstrates that despite high accessibility of tests and vaccines to the entirety of the population and tailored outreach efforts, socioeconomic, and ethnic disparities not only failed to diminish, but they even widened along the five pandemic waves. Clinical relevance: The pandemic exposed the vulnerability of the weakest segments of the population. Therefore, the combined action of the Ministry of Health, health providers, and local authorities is required to further adapt health messages to the cultural characteristics of diverse populations, to equip the health professionals with practical tools to promote healthy choices among the vulnerable populations, and to build communities that promote healthy lifestyles. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of reducing health disparities and building trust between vulnerable populations and the healthcare system during “normal” or routine times, to better prepare for times of emergencies, such as the current pandemic.
- health policy